Dinner theater (sometimes called dinner and a show) is a form of entertainment that combines a restaurant meal with a staged play or musical. Sometimes the play is incidental entertainment, secondary to the meal, in the style of a sophisticated night club, or the play may be a major production with dinner less important, or in some cases, optional. Dinner theater requires the management of three distinct entities: a live theater, a restaurant, and usually, a bar.
The Madrigal dinner in the Middle Ages might be considered the earliest dinner theater. The earliest dinner theaters served dinner in one room, and staged the play in another. Those are now known as theatre restaurants, a dinner theater subclassification.
Barksdale Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, founded in 1953 by David and Nancy Kilgore at the historic Hanover Tavern, was the first formal dinner theater in the United States. After the theatre was established, an adjoining room in the theatre was changed to accommodate a buffet dinner for groups attending the performance, eventually becoming available to all patrons. However, "Barksdale prefers to be known as a theatre that happens to have a restaurant, and dinner is optional," their brochure states. They are a professional, non-profit theatre.
Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre
Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana opened in March 1973, and was one of a chain of dinner theatres founded by J. Scott Talbott. It has a 450-seat house and features Broadway shows and concerts preceded by a buffet dinner. It also offers a Live Theatre for Kids series each season. It is a professional theatre and member of Actors' Equity Association.
Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant
Cedar Grove, New Jersey, located half an hour from Manhattan, was the location of the second dinner theater, the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant, which opened in 1960. It lasted only 13 years, in part due to 700+ seats of table service, nearby competition from Broadway, and Actors' Equity Association requirements that the facility follow the rules that applied to Broadway Theatres, including pay scales and other restrictions.
Drury Lane Theatres
Tony DeSantis opened the Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park, Illinois and began producing plays in 1949 in a tent adjacent to the restaurant to attract customers. The enterprise was successful, prompting him to build his first theater, Drury Lane Evergreen Park in 1958. It was the first of six dinner theaters he started and a local entertainment landmark for 45 years before closing in 2003. Drury Lane North began operations in 1976, but was soon sold to the Marriott Lincolnshire Resort and became the Marriott Theatre. Drury Lane Oak Brook Terrace opened in 1984, and benefited from what DeSantis had learned over the years. The facility uses local performers to keep costs down; the theater is surrounded by bars, restaurants and banquet rooms; shows are limited to musicals; and there is no charge for parking.
Candlelight Theatre Restaurant
The first facility where dinner and the show were together in one room was the Candlelight Theatre Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Bill Pullinsi was a theater student in 1959 who conceived and implemented the entertainment concept at the Presidential Arms Hotel during summer breaks at Catholic University. The venture was successful, but Pullinsi was unable to convert to a year-round operation, due to the hotel's convention business. Pullinsi returned to his Chicago home and opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, first in a building owned by his grandfather, then in a new facility with seating for 550, constructed with the help of his family. The Candlelight introduced several innovations, including the hydraulic stage, lighting equipment located in the mezzanine, and stage wagons on wheels.
Barn Dinner Theatre
Howard Douglass Wolfe was an entrepreneur from Roanoke, Virginia who created the Barn Dinner Theatre franchise and was tagged, "Father of Dinner Theater". He began the franchise in 1961 with longtime friend and business partner Conley Jones. The chain included 27 theaters in New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. Each franchise featured his architectural barn designs, farm-themed decorations that included a plow and other tools, and Wolfe's elevator, which he patented as the "Magic Stage". At the end of an act or scene, the stage would disappear into the ceiling, then reappear ready for the next scene. The whole process took less than a minute. During the franchise phase of The Barn, all the productions were staged at a studio in New York City, then sent out to the individual theaters. At the break-up of the franchise, the production facilities were moved to their present location in Nashville. Back in its early days, the performance's cast not only acted on stage, they were the waiters and waitresses. Actors were selected and cast in New York and resided in living quarters above the theater for the duration of the productions. Robert De Niro reportedly acted at The Barn in Greensboro until he was fired in the middle of a show. Mickey Rooney and many other well-known performers have also acted in roles at The Barn. The Barn in Greensboro, North Carolina, was founded in 1964 and is the oldest continuously running dinner theater in America and the last of the original Barn Dinner Theatres, though a Barn franchise opened in Nashville in 1967 (now called Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre) is also still in operation.
Alhambra Dinner Theatre
The Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida was opened in 1967 by Leon Simon. It was purchased in 1985 by Tod Booth, who left Chicago's Drury Lane Theatres. The Alhambra is the second oldest dinner theater still open in the United States and the oldest in Florida. The facility uses a thrust stage to provide all 400 seats with an unobstructed view.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota were founded in 1968. Herb Bloomberg, who designed and built the expanded Old Log Theater near Lake Minnetonka, subsequently constructed and operated the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The Old Log Theater has an attached dining room and revenue from food sales is necessary for financial success, but they are not a dinner theater. The Chanhassen claims to be the largest professional dinner theater in the U.S.; the Main Stage seats 577, the Fireside Theatre contains 230 seats for non-dining patrons, and the Playhouse Theatre has tables for 126.)
Carousel Dinner Theatre
The Carousel Dinner Theatre, with 1200 seats, was the largest dinner theater in the United States until it closed on January 4, 2009. It was first opened in 1973, then moved to downtown Akron, Ohio in 1988 to what had been a nightclub with the style and glitz of Las Vegas. The theater was a victim of the late 2000s economic crisis that tightened credit after years of bad investments by major financial institutions.
The 1970s were the heyday of dinner theaters, which provided popular regional entertainment for local audiences. Alhambra Dinner Theatre owner Tod Booth noted that in 1976, there were 147 professional dinner theaters in operation. Particularly popular were the dinner theaters who used former movie names to star in the productions. Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Don Ameche, Eve Arden, Mickey Rooney, June Allyson, Shelley Winters, Dorothy Lamour, Tab Hunter, Betty Grable, Sandra Dee, Mamie Van Doren, Joan Blondell, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Kathryn Grayson, Betty Hutton, Jane Withers, Martha Raye, Elke Sommer, Donald O'Connor, Roddy McDowall, Jane Russell, Cesar Romero, and Ann Miller are just a few of the stars of the golden era of Hollywood who found success in the field. Also popular were stars and character actors from well remembered television series from earlier years such as Betty White, Ann B. Davis, Vivian Vance, Bob Denver, JoAnne Worley, Bernie Kopell, Dawn Wells, Ken Berry, Gavin MacLeod, Nancy Kulp, and Frank Sutton.
The Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Indiana opened in 1974 and was still open in 2009, operating continuously for 35 years. They utilized a "magic stage" similar to those used by the Barn Dinner Theatre. An orchestra, if utilized, plays in the "attic", out of sight.
The boom seemed to end in the mid-1980s, with many of them closing and most no longer able to afford or attract celebrities, even faded ones, to star in their productions. Aging stars started receiving offers for television and commercial work and they stopped doing dinner theater. Alhambra Dinner Theatre owner Tod Booth commented, "They could make more in a day doing a commercial than they could make during the entire run of dinner theater show, and they didn't have to travel. Plus, a lot of the stars just started dying off. It was a fine gig for a while." Booth went on to say that, in 1999, you could count the number of surviving professional dinner theaters on two hands. There was a stigma attached to dinner theater and audiences got tired of fluff shows such as The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Arsenic and Old Lace. According to Booth, "A lot of that was crap". In response to criticism and the change in available talent, many theaters started using up-and-coming but relatively unknown actors and began to offer new Broadway shows. They promoted the shows, rather than the stars.
After 2000, there seemed to be a resurgence, with a number of new dinner theaters opening. Chicago's original Drury Lane Water Tower Place was founded in 1976, but closed in 1983. A new, $7 million version opened on May 18, 2004. The Desert Star Theater in Murray, Utah opened a dinner theater in 2004, and the Gathering Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville opened in early 2009. At the end of 2006, the National Dinner Theatre Association had 32 members, up from only 9 in 1999.
Union vs. Non Union
There is a basic distinction between union and non-union theaters. The former are known as Equity theatres, where performers are members of the Actors' Equity Association (AEA), the union that represents professional stage actors and stage managers. Union shows have a higher overhead because Actor’s Equity contracts typically require the theater to pay for lodging, a minimum salary, insurance and pension payments as well as other work rules regarding auditions and hiring.
The reduction in professional dinner theaters from 147 in 1976 to 9 in 1999 was not because the facilities went out of business; those theaters changed to non-union to reduce expenses. Typically actors are still housed, paid a competitive salary among non-union theaters, and sometimes even fed. However, salary for non-union actors may be significantly less than that of a union actor.
Commercial vs. non-profit
Tony DeSantis had a lifetime of experience with restaurants and dinner theater. He claimed that you could make money with a restaurant, but it was the alcohol sales that were profitable; if you broke even when operating a theater, you were successful. While many theaters operate as not-for-profit organizations in order to take advantage of grants and funding from government agencies or private foundations, most dinner theaters are commercial businesses due to the management and capital requirements of both theater and restaurant operations. Commercial dinner theatres will have shows six or seven nights a week, as well as matinees. They will also have short breaks between shows, usually less than a week. A typical non-profit is the Starlight Dinner Theatre in Lansing, Michigan, where the dinner is catered, the shows are staged at a school cafetorium and the season includes only four productions with four performances per production (on Friday and Saturday nights). Most non-profits also use amateur actors or the leading role may be a professional with the rest of the cast composed of amateurs.
Vacation destinations such as Las Vegas, Destin, Florida, Branson, Missouri, Anaheim, and Los Angeles have seen the emergence of specialty dinner theaters, where the show stays the same for an extended run because the vast majority of their customers are tourists, not local residents. The most popular vacation destination in the United States, Orlando, Florida, had more than a dozen competing for a share of the $17.3 Billion that tourists spent in 1999. Through the 1990s, sixteen Dinner Theaters opened and closed there.
Murder mystery games (MM) are interactive dinner theater events that have become a popular segment of their own. The productions may be public, where anyone can attend for the price of admission, or private, where a company, social group or organization sponsors an event for its members.
While utilizing the “dinner and a show” concept, MM generally targets a smaller audience than typical dinner theater, with public performances featuring professional actors while private showings may offer "roles" to the guests, who participate in the production as either characters or detectives.
Wedding Comedy is similar to Murder Mystery because the staging requirements are minimal and the audience has interaction with the actors while they perform. Joey and Maria's Comedy Italian Wedding was written by Darlyne Franklin in 1992 and the franchise rights were sold in 2001. Other examples include Tony n' Tina's Wedding, Frankie & Gina's Comedy Wedding and a gay version, Joni and Gina's Wedding.
Riverboat Dinner Cruises combine Showboat with a meal. Obviously, they are limited to locations on a navigable body of water, such as the Showboat Branson Belle or the Goldenrod Showboat. There are numerous Murder Mystery Dinner Cruises.
Madrigal dinners aka Madrigal Feasts are seasonal, typically held during the Christmas season. They are often staged by educational or religious entities for fundraising and include food, music & singing, poetry & humor, costumes and a play from the Middle Ages, ranging from medieval to the renaissance periods.
- Bull, Roger: Florida Times-Union, December 23, 2008-New dinner theater planned
- Lynk, William M.: Dinner Theatre-A Survey and Directory, page 18, Greenwood Publishing, 1993, ISBN 0-313-28442-3
- McAuley, Muriel: Going On...Barksdale Theatre, The First Thirty-One Years, page 16, Taylor Publishing, 1984. ISBN 0-9613905-0-6.
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- Calos, Katherine: DiscoverRichmond.com, July 22, 2008. No Barking at Barksdale; Retrieved 2008-10-01
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- Virginia is for Lovers website, Barksdale Theatre
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- Munson, Nancy: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, June 19, 2003-Wal-Mart to Replace Dinner Theater in Evergreen Park, IL
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- Galbraith, Kate: New York Times, December 10, 2006, Do-It-Yourself Entertainment, Way Off Broadway
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- Teverbaugh, Don: St. Petersburg Times, August 10, 1966- Florida's First Barn Dinner Theatre May Open in City
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- Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre
- Patton, Charlie: Florida Times-Union, March 28, 1999; Curtain Call
- Capitano, Laura: Florida Times-Union, May 2, 2008-For dinner and a show, why not head to the Alhambra?
- Minnesota Monthly, May 2009-Wise Guys
- Chanhassen website, Seating
- Brown, Tony: Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 3, 2009-Akron's Carousel Dinner Theatre has its final performance
- Noles, Randy: Florida Times-Union, August 17, 2003; Guess Who Came to Dinner
- Roadside America: Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum
- Brumburgh, Gary: MComet – Earl Holliman Biography
- Suddeath, Daniel: News and Tribune, February 28, 2009-Derby Dinner Playhouse continues success with unique atmosphere in Clarksville
- Liljegren, Tom Tom: The Utah Statesman, August 22, 2006-Boo and hiss at Tom Cruise at the Desert Star
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- Starlight Dinner Theatre, Welcome
- Applegate, Jane: Los Angeles Business Journal, November 29, 1999-Dinner Theater Is a Tough Sell in Capital of Tourism
- Hawkins, Brenda: Naples News, March 11, 2009-Join the action in comedy dinner theater
- Madrigal Traditions, What's a Madrigal Dinner?
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